Human cloning – A Number

February 28, 2007

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) How would cloned sons react to one another and how would they interact with their father? These are some of the issues raised by Caryl Churchill’s play A Number.  The story consists of five conversations, snapshots into an otherwise untold narrative.  Each scene features the same two actors, father and son, but the younger is actually representing three different sons – one conceived naturally and two that are his clones. 

In the first conversation, the father (Salter) is talking with Bernard, a son he has raised on his own.  Bernard, aged 35, is aware that he is a clone and that other genetically identical individuals exist.  He is cross-examining his father about what happened to his older self and is informed (incorrectly, as we shall see) that he died in a car crash with the boy’s mother.  Bernard despairs that “I’m just a copy”, but Salter stresses he is “the one”, the reason why the cloning was originally done and that the scientists carrying out the process had deceived him by making other additional copies.

In the second conversation, it transpires that the first son (also called Bernard) is very much alive but was grossly neglected as a child, particularly after the death of his mother.  He knows that a clone exists and has been brought up by Salter in his rightful place, “you had a copy of me made from a ‘painless scrape’ and… you had the rest of me thrown away”.

In conversation three, the clone Bernard is talking with his father.  He has now met his older original and aware of the jealous rage of his neglected sibling, intends to flee from him.  As such, this conversation is partly goodbye and partly an appeal to know the truth before he goes – if his brother clearly hasn’t died in a car crash, then what came of his mother who was supposed to have died in the same incident?  Salter tells him what, we must assume, is the real version – she threw herself under a train.

The fourth conversation is between father and original son. He has tracked down and slain the other Bernard, the chosen clone.  What, asks the father, about me?  What about the other clones – will they all be killed?  The fifth and final conversation reveals the answer; Bernard has killed himself instead.  Salter is now talking with Michael, one of the additional twenty clones that were made without his permission.  Michael asks various questions – does his father intend to meet with all of the clones?  Do I look like the original son?  The striking feature of this exchange however is the ordinariness of Michael’s life – his job (maths teacher) and his family (married with three children). Were it not for the unusual circumstances of his birth he might have been an anybody.

Originally an hour-long stage play, a 45 minute radio version starring Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig was transmitted on BBC7 in November 2006 (TRILT identifier 005D6A7D).  A script is published by Theatre Communications Group (ISBN-10 1559362251; ISBN-13 978-1559362252).

How could I see A Number being used in a teaching setting?  A thoughtful class of A level students (that is 17 or 18 year old, for those not familiar with the UK system) studying English might discuss the place of cloning in fiction, perhaps drawing comparison with Never Let Me Go and/or The Island.  In truth, however, although cloning is central to A Number, the play offers more insights into relationships than either the ethics or science of human cloning.  As Matt Cheney has commented on his Mumpsimus blog “Churchill doesn’t write a play “about” cloning, but rather a play that includes cloning, a play that couldn’t exist without cloning.” The question of genetic determinism, nature v nurture might be raised; the three sons may be genetically identical, but their diverse upbringing has clearly led to dramatic differences in their personalities.  Having said that, the reality is that, although thought provoking, A Number is probably not the first choice for introducing science students to the arguments surrounding the ethics and/or technology of human cloning. 

Gene therapy – Die Another Day

February 8, 2007

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!)  This is one of those occasions when a blockbuster film gets the science wildly wrong.  Central to the plot of the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day is the ability of one of Bond’s foes, the North Korean Colonel Moon, to radically alter his appearance and resurface as upper crust caucasian Gustav Graves.  The change is achieved, as Bond (Pierce Brosnan) tells M (Judi Dench), by “Gene therapy – new identities courtesy of DNA transplants”. 

This is, of course, nonsense.  Although gene therapy has the potential to correct diseases resulting from a faulty copy of one gene there is never the scope to carry out such radical alterations as portrayed in this film.  Indeed, even the more limited aspiration to use gene therapy to cure relatively simple diseases has had a chequered history (see, for example, the BioethicsBytes notes on the Horizon programme Trial and Error, and news stories about leukaemia risks from one gene therapy method).

Are there any clips worth using in teaching about gene therapy?  Despite the fact that the content is way off beam, I use clips from the film as an engaging introduction to a lecture on the science and ethics of gene therapy.  The quote from Bond to M actually comes quite late in the film, long after the clinic where the work was supposedly being carried out has been destroyed.  If you have the technical capability it is worth trying to show the section 59.33 to 59.46 where M and Bond are talking (from “now tell me about this cuban clinic…” to “… didn’t know it really existed) directly before the earlier footage, 40.49 to 41.45, where Bond visits the clinic at about the same time Jinx (Halle Berry) sees off the surgeon with the words “… famous after they’re dead”.